U.S., Russia agree to nuclear arms control treaty

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top White House advisers announced a new treaty with Russia on Friday that will reduce the amount of nuclear weapons held by both countries.
By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 27, 2010

President Obama announced a major new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty Friday, gaining a critical victory as U.S. diplomats head into an intense period of international meetings aimed at keeping the devastating weapons out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists.

Just days after the new pact is signed April 8, Obama will host perhaps the biggest summit ever in Washington, to urge countries to lock down loose nuclear material. A few weeks later, the U.S. government will try to strengthen the world's bedrock agreement limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

But if the president has gained momentum on pushing his nuclear agenda globally, he still may face a fight getting the 10-year Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, through the Senate this year. The deal with Russia will need Republican backing to get the 67 votes required for ratification.

Arms-control experts said the main virtue of the new pact was that it would allow the two countries that own nearly 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons to continue verifying each other's stockpiles. But as details emerged Friday, it appeared the new treaty might make lower-than-advertised changes in each country's arsenals. While U.S. officials touted a 30 percent lowering of the ceiling for warheads and bombs deployed for long-range missiles, arms-control experts warned that the new pact used different counting rules than previous ones.

The new limit of 1,550 deployed warheads could represent an actual decline of only about 100 or 200 weapons -- a reduction of only as much as 13 percent -- from the comparable figure under the previous treaty, said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

A White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, cautioned that the exact reductions had not been determined.

Each side will also reduce to 700 the number of deployed missiles and bombers that can launch nuclear weapons. That represents a reduction of about 100 to 200 from current U.S. levels, according to estimates by experts.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) acknowledged Friday that Senate consideration will take place in a strained legislative environment but pleaded with his colleagues to set their broader political agendas aside.

"I know there has been a partisan breakdown in recent years, but we can renew the Senate's bipartisan tradition on arms control and approve ratification of this treaty in 2010," said Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), a prominent moderate, called for quick ratification.

Several Republicans who have expressed concern about the treaty said they would wait to see it before issuing judgment. One senior Republican source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the key to approving the agreement would be the strength of its verification procedures.

Negotiations on START had bogged down in recent months, raising fears among arms-control activists that the president would be dealt a setback as U.S. diplomats went into critical global meetings on nonproliferation.

Negotiators said they ran into impasses over Russia's demands for less intrusive verification rules and its unwillingness to share the same amount of telemetry data on its missile tests, according to people familiar with the talks. In addition, the two sides clashed over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe. Washington says that system is aimed at Iran, but the Russians view it as a threat on their borders.

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